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The Real Heroes of the Silver Screen

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If you're not a little goofy about movies, just turn the page. There's plenty of other stuff about William Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson, Jalila Jefferson, et al on the pages that follow.

But this is for people who are goofy about movies, people who know movie soundtracks, the name of the guy who played W.C. Fields' repentant son in The Fatal Glass of Beer, or the name of the studio Preston Sturges worked for in the 1940s.

Those are the sorts of people who know that movies must consist of more than a Nicole Kidman, an Ethan Hawke, a Greta Garbo, a John Wayne. More than stars, movies must have someone to play the society mother, cuckolded spouse, gossiping neighbor, drunken doctor, starched spinster, cutthroat tycoon, staunch matriarch, ruminating editor, sniveling snitch or cowardly colonel.

Custom has called the men and women who play these roles 'supporting" players or, more kindly, 'character" actors. I've always loved 'em and would like to say a few words on their behalf.

Guys like Lionel Barrymore in Captains Courageous. We needed someone to show us things, like how to look right smoking a pipe or cloaking Freddie Bartholomew with some much-needed cinematic cred by saying things like, 'A boy never gets too old not to need his father."

He says this to Freddie's movie dad, Melvyn Douglas, and 30 years later Douglas, still a dad, tells Paul Newman: 'That's the trouble with you, Hud. You just don't give a damn," and shows us how a man can drag some dignity deep into old age.

And how's about Charles Coburn? He could wear a monocle as well as anyone and I really loved (maybe identified with) his portrayal of Sir Francis, the old rouge who lusts after Marilyn Monroe in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.

But I saw him best as the guy who shares a war-time apartment with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea in The More the Merrier and tells her: 'I missed two Sundays of Superman once, and I've never felt the same since." And that told me forever the importance of triviality in all our lives.

Girls can play, too. Remember Jane Darwell as Ma Joad, looking deeply into a mirror and holding to her ears a pair of long-ago earrings and without a word giving The Grapes of Wrath a poignancy and humanity it never, in spite of its greatness, quite matched for the rest of the reel.

It wouldn't be fair to single just one movie made more memorable by the measured tones and borne (with wisecracks) pain of Thelma Ritter. But I'll try The Birdman of Alcatraz, in which she played the controlling momma of longtime convict Burt Lancaster. At some point, Burt engineers a jailhouse wedding without Thelma's permission. Later you see a reporter asking her why she would oppose her son's parole hearing. From a face frozen by age and animosity, she gives the eternal answer of the parental tyrant: 'I'm doing it for his own good."

I know fans of the fat villain love to laud Sydney Greenestreet, but I, myself, have always preferred Victor Buono. There was always something childlike about Sydney; there was nothing of the beautiful child about Victor. He had a voice that oozed and he used it both in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. In The Silencers he tells Dean Martin: 'The explosion will raise a cloud of radioactive dust that will settle over vast areas of the Southwest beautiful!"

Beautiful, too, was Frank Morgan. Don't ask me why, but I am looking at the guy who ruled Emerald City ('I am Oz!") with little Liz Taylor in Courage of Lassie. In the climactic scene, Lassie is on some kind of trial and Morgan makes a speech that could have gotten Charles Manson off.

Of course, it helped that Harry Davenport played the judge. Harry played old men and he played them with more grace than old men can usually muster. He was good in things like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Ox-bow Incident, but most know him as Dr. Meade, who stops Scarlett at the door of a dying Melanie and with calm resolve and kindness tells her he doesn't want her unburdening her convenient conscience at this late hour. He gets all this across as they pass in the hall.

Remember Martin Balsam and his always-distinctive voice? He was in everything: On the Waterfront, Psycho, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Cape Fear, Seven Days in May. He was the stage driver in Hombre, reasonableness between sociopaths Paul Newman and Richard Boone. In Harlow, he gets to tell Carroll Baker, 'Try to stay the same unspoiled movie star you always were."

Many of the supporting-cast members were unspoiled because they weren't movie stars at all. Like Eric Blore, who played the scornful, lisping English pomp-and-circumstance guy in all the Fred and Ginger flicks. As the man-servant in Top Hat, he tells Astaire: 'Allow us to introduce ourselves, sir. We are Bates." One of the few guys who could remain likeable while referring to himself in the third person.

Then there was Spencer Charters, who played the judge in Young Mr. Lincoln, the one who says, 'Come, come, gentlemen. You've got to give the boys a fair trial — a jury trial, before you hang 'em." Or Abner Biberman, the tiniest tough-guy of all time, playing Cary Grant's go-fer in His Girl Friday?

Poor Roy Barcroft. He made many of his films at Republic, things like Pals of the Pecos and Down Dakota Way, because guys like Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy had to have somebody around to punch in the jaw. He did more than 260 movies and serials, and it wasn't till the last five that he got to be in winners like Rosemary's Baby, The Reivers and Monte Walsh.

Luckier by far were guys like Ward Bond, who got to play roles like master-of-the-situation-ethics Father Lonergan in blockbusters like The Quiet Man. And Alan Hale, who played Little John to two Robin Hoods, Douglas Fairbanks in 1922 and Errol Flynn in 1938. He went too soon. He had a head made for Cinemascope.

Those who play star-supporters don't necessarily have to be homo sapiens. In The Circus, Chaplin does some wonderful physical comedy on the high wire, but when he looks for a climactic finish, he goes inter-species. Wide-eyed rhesus monkeys, some kissing him, some sticking their tails up his nose, others pulling his pants down around his ankles.

I loved them, even though they didn't make the transition to talkies very well.

So many others. So many Harry Careys and Harry Morgans and Ellen Corbys and Edward Arnolds. Because for every Dr. Strangelove or Jezebel, there were a dozen or a hundred movies with names like South to Karonga or Her Highness and the Bellboy and they all needed characters to give 'em a little character.

Thanks for all the support.

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